Being a teenager is usually associated today with being connected to everything all the time—wired to countless social-media platforms, stalked by online marketers, your location always trackable by your devices’ GPS. But young people’s seemingly hyper-networked worlds can mask deep gaps in everyday life. The recent teacher strikes and protests over under-resourced schools, along with rising levels of anxiety among many young people, are signs that the generation coming into adulthood may lack the critical social connections crucial for their future development.
Roughly one in eight youths in America are considered to be what social scientists call “disconnected.” The clinical term refers generally to young people who are neither working nor attending school. It is often bandied about in policy debates to address social problems ranging from juvenile crime to low graduation rates. But the common thread is that “disconnectedness” encompasses overlapping forms of disadvantage pervading their most formative years—standing between these youths and work or school are violence in their communities, underfunded schools, segregated housing, and simply an absence of supportive peers and adults in their lives.
But rather than fixating on disconnection as a problem that happens between ages 16 and 24, new data map out how disconnection operates over the course of a lifetime. Measure of America (MoA), a project of the Social Science Research Council, traces the lives of youth going back three decades, to project the changes that their circumstances set in motion. Beyond the basic economic math of poorer job prospects and academic credentials, the data show that a typical disconnected youth tends to slide down an increasingly divergent path from their peers.
The good news is that overall rates of youth disconnection have declined steadily since peaking in 2010 during the recession. As of 2016, the nationwide rate today is 12 percent—about 4.6 million youth—sharply stratified by race, geography, and class. Today, some advocates prefer the “glass-half-full” parlance of “opportunity youth,” to promote positive intervention instead of simply writing them off as hopeless. But whether you see disconnected youth as a liability or an asset, the analysis, mapping out some three decades of youth experience, presents two possible paths for struggling young people, as a natural experiment in social investment.
The most obvious impacts of being socially disconnected in your teens and early 20s are economic, but engagement with education and work ties into myriad other social goods, including “greater civic engagement and political participation; better health and longer life expectancy; more stable romantic relationships; more sensitive, responsive parenting; and greater ability to adjust to change.”
The long-term economic damage of youth disconnection isn’t just personal hardship; it reflects and perpetuates structural wealth divides that determine wider patterns of social segregation that are reproduced in future generations. In a sample group of youth tracked from 1993 to 2003, those who were disconnected for a year or more ended up earning about $44,000 a year 15 years later, while the more advantaged youth were earning about $78,000 by that time.
The root causes of disconnection are harder to disentangle than its bleak future trajectory. Kids don’t become marginalized of their own choosing: maybe a parent’s medical crisis forces a teenager to leave school to provide care at home; maybe the trauma of an abusive family pushes a young person into the criminal-justice system. But whatever factors have disrupted their lives, giving them the tools to keep their lives together in youth can save them a lifetime of hardship.
Restoring public housing, targeting funding toward high-poverty and segregated schools, actively supporting students with disabilities and limited English proficiency—all those factors create a safety network to keep young people stable as they pursue their education or training. Even social investment in public transit and other social infrastructure can help young people begin their work lives with secure housing and access to jobs. In turn, the material benefits of fostering those connections return eventually into public coffers: By the time they reach their 30s, connected youth contribute nearly $12,000 more in yearly taxes.
The way that gaps in racial equity intersect with the phenomenon of disconnected youth reveals how historical injustices demand the reframing of social policy around the goal of racial equity. In addition to wide racial gaps in youth-disconnection rates (about 9 percent of white youth compared to 14 percent, 17 percent, and 26 percent for Latino, black, and Native American youth, respectively), black young men and boys face extremely disproportionate rates of institutionalization and criminalization. Disproportionality in youth disconnection can’t be resolved without race-conscious public policies that deal with historical patterns of discrimination, including culturally competent education programs and restorative justice for youth caught in the criminal-justice system.
While much public discussion on youth policy has focused on early education lately, MoA makes the case that young adulthood is another critical juncture in youth development—and it marks perhaps a last opportunity for turning a kid’s life around. According to Kristen Lewis of MoA, co-author of the report, policy-makers need to recognize that a childhood marked by hardship is a turning point, not a life sentence:
even though early childhood investments have been shown to have the greatest return, this study shows that investing in today’s disconnected young people would also have a significant economic return…. And economics aside, these young people deserve our help and support; society failed them when they were toddlers, preschoolers, or elementary and secondary school students. To say we can either help toddlers and preschoolers or help opportunity youth is a false choice; America is the richest country on earth and can afford to do both.
Though the report doesn’t point to a specific policy prescription, the data elucidate the complex and multifaceted barriers that young people struggle with every day. Finding comprehensive solutions requires marshaling public-policy mandates, the nonprofit sector, local employers, and their communities themselves. Including youth directly in the formation of policy is key—not just because they’ll have good ideas, but also because the political process itself needs to listen to youth themselves as civic actors. A youth growing up in an impoverished rural town has different needs from a teen struggling with homelessness in a segregated urban neighborhood. Both can voice critical insights into what their communities need to help them survive.
The core lesson from the study is that disconnectedness is the product of interconnected problems, and fixing it requires more than ad hoc social supports. Otherwise, ignoring the cracks in the system will allow them to widen beyond repair.